When Susan Lacz renovated her Chevy Chase kitchen more than a decade ago, she insisted on a walk-in pantry, which features stainless Metro shelving. (Doug Kapustin/For The Washington Post)

If you’re wondering where the best kitchen storage went, blame the breakfast nook.

The walk-in pantry is a time-honored place to organize foodstuffs, small appliances, outsize pots and platters. Its cans have been kicked in and out of American kitchen design since the early 20th century. Squeezed out in recent years, the pantry deserves a widespread comeback.

When Susan Lacz renovated her Chevy Chase kitchen, an 8-foot-by-5-foot walk-in pantry was a must. “I asked for it!” says the chief executive of Ridgewells Catering.

Her project was completed 12 years ago, but you’d never know it. The vibe is sleek yet utilitarian, with a multi-level island, lots of high-gloss cabinets and deep, soft-closing drawers. It’s not clear that a pantry’s even necessary, until she swings open the door for a mini-tour.

It is filled to maximum efficiency. Free-standing, stainless steel Metro shelving offers easy access and is impressively organized with kid crafts on the bottom; canned goods, teas and grains at eye level; wide bowls and platters at the top of her reach.

Free-standing, stainless steel Metro shelving offers easy access and is organized with kid crafts on the bottom; canned goods, teas and grains at eye level; wide bowls and platters at the top. (Doug Kapustin/Fof The Washington Post)

Big houses with big kitchens tend to have walk-in pantries. That’s either ironic or just unfair because pantries are a perfect solution for space-challenged kitchens. A workable walk-in space can eliminate the tyranny of so many upper and lower fixed cupboards.

Of course, pantries predate Ikea kitchen options. They date back centuries, according to the Encyclopedia of Food and Culture, which puts culinary history in anthropological context. In the Middle Ages, a separate, cool pantry space would hold vegetables as well as meats packed in lard; it was called a wet larder. A dry larder held grains, dried fruits and, of course, bread, which is where the word pantry comes from. (Bread is “panis” in Latin.)

A pantler was the servant in charge of the bread, and this position was important. By the 17th century, that duty came under the auspices of the butler in a well-to-do house. Over the next hundred years, the butler acquired a separate room for decanting wine and managing the glassware, china and silver. This was in addition to a cook’s pantry, a place for pots and kitchen utensils. Either or both might include a sink for cleaning and polishing.

Those pantries largely disappeared by the late 1930s, as kitchens became more integrated, with iceboxes for cool storage and furniture with compartments for dishes, baking supplies and canned goods. A decade or so later, those cupboards graduated to cabinets fixed on kitchen walls. But cabinets have limitations: dead space in the corners and top shelves where items can be out of sight, out of mind.

As we began to do more living in and around our kitchens in the 1970s and ’80s, they became focal points in need of expansion. So long, pantry. Hello, eat-in nook or passage to an adjacent family room. We got used to the trade-offs in storage space.

“If you have the luxury of retaining a pantry, absolutely keep it,” says Hedy Shashaani, the designer at Jack Rosen Custom Kitchens in Rockville who worked on Lacz’s kitchen.

Pantries made a kind of comeback in houses built in the 1980s and 1990s. They morphed into a wide, shallow closet with double doors and narrow, fixed shelves. But these closets “eat up a lot of space without offering a lot of storage,” says Washington architect Amy Weinstein. Now people often find space in the basement or garage to stash the bulk of supplies they haul home from big-box stores.

Professional organizers have specific strategies for the kitchen pantry closet. Kacy Paide of the Inspired Office in the District recommends grouping “likes with like” because keeping jars of tomatoes or sauce together prevents running out to pick up more of what’s already in-house. Individual chip bags and granola bars that come home in large packaging can be decanted to a single bin.

“One thing I do that takes a little bit of time is soaking the labels off jars,” she says. Her mismatched, emptied jars are used for all kinds of food storage. “I put Martha Stewart brown craft labels on the jars, and it makes them all look like they belong together.”

If you want to improve the pantry you’ve got, check out “Ten Kitchen Pantry Mistakes” at HandyAmerican.com. Among the suggestions: The door should swing out, not in, to maximize usable space. Install electrical outlets for a small wine cellar or task lighting or appliance chargers. There should be room to accommodate open baskets for storing root vegetables and onions, which is commonly overlooked in today’s simple fitted kitchens.

Think about what you need to store; maybe a combination of shallow, fixed shelves and deep shelving might be the answer. That’s how Weinstein would set up her dream walk-in pantry. Or she might install sliding pantry shelves and file-cabinet units.

Flexible storage: That’s what a pantry brings to the kitchen.


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